On a particularly humid Sunday afternoon in August, three Afghan refugee women sat in a cramped apartment in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar, in quiet concentration with needles and silk threads, embroidering intricate geometric patterns on a bottle green kurta. The embroidery had to be flawless, they said, as the kurta was going to be part of an Afghan bride’s trousseau. Rosana*, Parisa* and Sanaz*, were granted asylum in India after fleeing the war in Afghanistan. In order to make lives in their new home, the three women are using their expertise in traditional Afghan embroidery to earn an income.
The art of embroidery is deeply rooted in the cultural history of Afghanistan, and is traditionally done by women and girls. It is typically done on heavy silk, wool or cotton fabric and the designs vary depending on the region. Unlike other forms of embroidery, one cannot print this design on the fabric and embroider it. The Afghan technique involves counting each minute thread in the fabric weave to develop patterns that are symmetrical, evenly spaced, and perfectly matched. This often takes a physical toll on the artisans as they have to carefully pore over each stitch. The work is so intricate and precise that it is often mistaken for a weave or machine embroidery.
“I am from Kabul and come from a family of tailors and embroiderers,” said Rosana. “During the Taliban regime, girls were not allowed to study or step out of their homes. So my mother started teaching me embroidery to help us get through those troubled times.”
She escaped to India in 2015 with her three minor children after her husband was killed in an insurgent attack. Parisa, a young woman from Ghazni, was an 11-year-old when she was taught embroidery by the women in her family. “I never took it seriously and it was just a hobby,” she said. “We used to embroider our clothes for special occasions like weddings and festivals and it was never to earn money. In fact, I was working as a journalist with a local radio station.”
Parisa was forced to flee in 2016 after the Taliban targeted her for her work as a female journalist. Sanaz, who is from Kabul, was an orphan living with her uncle who routinely subjected her to violence and abuse. She decided to escape when he tried to forcibly marry her to a man four times her age. Talking about how she developed a love for this art, she said, “Since there were no women in my family, I picked up the skill on my own by observing the work of other women and practicing on scraps of cloth.”
Between the three of them, these women know four embroidering techniques. Parisa and Sanaz specialise in the embroidery styles called khamak and gulatlaz.
Khamak is one of the most intricate forms of embroidery in the world, and requires the use of fine silk threads. It is the hallmark of Afghan handicrafts. Traditionally, khamak is used on dresses and hats worn on weddings and special occasions.
Gulatlaz is characterised by the use of bright threads to create geometric patterns in the form of pointillism. Black thread is often used to accentuate colours and patterns. “Gulatlaz is one of the most difficult forms of embroidery,” said Sanaz. “It is more intricate than khamak and only young women with good eyesight can do it.” Gulatlaz is mainly done on purses, caps and cushion covers.
Bati dozi and giraf are Rosana’s department. Bati dozi uses bold and colourful threads to create vivid patterns on the fabric. An outline of the design is first created using a dark thread, then straight-line stitches, similar to the satin stitch, are made to fill the design with bright colours.
Giraf consists of multiple square stitches, resembling the cross-stitch, and is often used to make elaborate and dense patterns on the borders. Both these forms of embroidery are primarily used on home décor items such as bedspreads, curtain borders, and wall hangings.
Decades of war have had greatly damaged Afghanistan’s rich heritage of handicrafts. Many art forms, including embroidery, were on the brink of extinction, more so during the Taliban regime when artistic expressions were banned and women were not allowed to work. However, Afghan women have quietly kept this cherished craft alive by passing it on to the younger generations.
“In our country, you are not considered a good bride if you cannot stitch,” Parisa explained, giggling. In Afghanistan’s conservative society, embroidery is one of the few things most women can do to earn some money. “Women can stitch in their homes and sell their products through local vendors,” added Rosana. “This works well for women who are not meant to go outside the house.”
Since coming to Delhi, the three women have been trying to reinvent their craft to appeal to the Indian customer. “We are trying to adapt our embroidery to what people want here,” said Rosana. “The fabric we get here is very different from what we use in Afghanistan.” Indian handlooms and silk fabrics are extremely fine, they pointed out, and it is almost impossible for them to see the weave and count the threads.
Further, Afghanistan’s handicrafts and exquisite embroidery are little known outside the country. The women said it was difficult for them to generate an interest for their work in India.
“It takes us a month to embroider a shawl and people here are unwilling to pay the price for it because they are unfamiliar with this art,” said Parisa. The artisans can work no more than 2-4 hours a day with regular breaks as it strains the eyes.
Talking about their experience of trying to market their work, Rosana said, “We did show our samples to some boutiques in New Delhi but they want us to do work which they are familiar with. So, we end up getting orders for simple embroidery patterns, patchwork or knitting.”
So far, the women have been selling mostly to members of the Afghan community and foreign students. An embroidered shawl costs between Rs 10,000 to Rs 30,000, depending on the pattern, design and technique used.
Despite this, these women continue to get together every week to develop new patterns and designs with their traditional embroidery. Over the years, embroidery has become a therapeutic medium for them to deal with the trauma of war and displacement. It is what connects them to their homeland and helps them relive the happy memories of weddings, festivals and other special occasions. More important, it helps them preserve their cultural identity in an alien land. As Rosana put it, “I am grateful that I have this skill because I can keep my home close to me and I know that I can survive anywhere.”
*Some names have been changed to protect identities.
Roshni Shanker and Nayantara Raja work for Ara Trust, a refugee law centre based in Delhi. The trust is currently running a programme to help refugee women promote and preserve their traditional handicrafts.